Chava Rosenfarb

A collection of resources about Yiddish writer Chava Rosenfarb

Chava Rosenfarb (1923-2011) was one of the most important Yiddish novelists of the post-War period. Born in Lodz, Rosenfarb was incarcerated with her family in the Lodz ghetto. When the ghetto was liquidated, Rosenfarb was sent to Auschwitz and later to Bergen-Belsen. She was on the verge of dying from typhus when the British liberated the camp in 1945. She spent several years as a Displaced Person in Brussels, where she began writing The Tree of Life, now her best-known work. She immigrated to Montreal in 1950. 

Rosenfarb began to write poetry in the ghetto. In Montreal, she resumed her nascent literary career. In a thoughtful, perceptive, and moving feature about the life and work of Rosenfarb, the former Pakn Treger editor Jeff Sharlet wrote, "For years after the war and after the camps, Chava Rosenfarb woke up every morning at 4 a.m. to write. She'd open her eyes in the darkness and slip out of bed without waking her husband, make herself a cup of coffee and sit down in her study, still wearing her nightgown. Her study was even smaller than her kitchen—barely large enough for the table she had bought for ten dollars from a doctor's office. On it she kept a stack of notebooks. Sipping her coffee, she'd pick up the top one, and by the light of the table lamp, beneath a portrait of the Yiddish writer I. L. Peretz, review yesterday's stories."

Below, in conversation with the Yiddish Book Center's Wexler Oral History Project, Rosenfarb's daughter and translator Goldie Morgentaler discusses her mother's writing style, which deftly combined realistic and impressionistic qualities, and her process of translating The Tree of Life

Speaking with the Yiddish Book Center's Sebastian Schulman, Morgentaler also describes the process of translating her mother's collection of stories, "Survivors." 

Goldie Morgentaler talks about translating "Survivors"

Perhaps the most interesting talk Rosenfarb gave at the Jewish Public LIbrary, however, was one about herself, in English, in 2004. The event found her in a good mood, willing and ready to share her story in a space that served as her second home. “But I came to you tonight from the bucolic, sunny city of Lethbridge, Alberta,” she says at the beginning. The audience laughs. “What’s the joke?” Rosenfarb asks, laughing as well. But immediately, she moves into more serious territory:  

Chava Rosenfarb reflects on her life's journey

“I live there a peaceful, idyllic life—and a life full of contentment. When I consider where I live now, and where I have lived, I cannot believe that I am the same person, that I am the same Yiddish writer and Holocaust survivor who has been asked here to address you on the subject of her life and work. Because neither my life nor my work has been bucolic, idyllic, peaceful, or full of contentment.”

At the end of the lecture, Rosenfarb explicates the origins of the novel, The Tree of Life, and what she hoped to uncover and discover in imagining the Lodz ghetto: the human condition.

Chava Rosenfarb reflects on writing "The Tree of Life"

“On my voyage back into the Ghetto, I wanted to take with me all the questions that had tormented me after the liberation. Why had the world learned nothing from our suffering? Were the Nazis only the most extreme example of the urge to do evil, or was the drive to destroy inherent in human nature? The Nazis were, for me, the most obvious channel through which the poison of hatred could flow freely—but the poison itself, where did it come from? What was its source? In writing about the Ghetto, I wanted to find that source. I wanted to discover the essence of our humanity, to touch upon the source, upon the core of the human soul and see it reflected in the soul of the Ghetto Jew, who had stood stripped of every shred of artifice and pretense necessary to leading a normal life.

There, in the Ghetto, humans had faced humans without any embellishments or illusions. They had faced the brutality of their fellow human beings, as well as the knowledge of what that brutality meant to their own destinies. It was as if the dams of a river had opened within me and I became pregnant with the idea for my book. And so it was, that by the time I arrived in Montreal, I was doubly pregnant: pregnant with my daughter, who was born in Canada, and pregnant with my novel, which was born here as well, but many years later, when my daughter was already grown and my son was an adolescent. I called this novel about the death of the Jewish community of Lodz The Tree of Life.”

A number of Rosenfarb's works are available in the Yiddish Book Center's online store, including her collection of stories Survivors, her novel The Tree of Life, which was published in three installments (1, 2, 3), and a collection of her poems, Exile at Last